Catholic priest in Erie diocese charged with child sexual abuse

By Ed Palattella
May 8, 2018

[with video]

Attorney General Shapiro says memo shows former Bishop Trautman knew of complaints against Rev. David Poulson. Current Bishop Persico said ‘Poulson’s name was not raised’ to him when he took over as bishop in 2012.

The charges that the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office filed against a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Erie focus on his behavior.

But the charges, filed Tuesday, also raise questions that go much higher — questions of about how the diocese’s former bishop handled complaints against the priest, who is accused of sexually abusing two boys in three counties between 2002 and 2010.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro said his investigation is ongoing.

In announcing the charges against the priest, the Rev. David L. Poulson, Shapiro said a confidential diocesan memo showed former Erie Catholic Bishop Donald W. Trautman knew, from at least 2010, about complaints concerning Paulson’s contact with minors.

Shapiro also said that, according to the memo, Poulson, in a recorded interview, admitted to Trautman that Paulson’s text messages with boys were “suggestive to sexual advances.”

That memo was dated May 24, 2010, Shapiro said. He said Trautman, who retired as bishop in 2012, allowed Poulson to remain in ministry after warning him not to be alone with boys.

Poulson, 64, resigned in February as pastor at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Cambridge Springs, Crawford County, after the diocese received credible allegations of child abuse against him, current Bishop Lawrence Persico said.

The attorney general’s records also show that those allegations led Persico to have the diocese contact the attorney general’s office about Poulson earlier this year.

And Persico, who succeeded Trautman as bishop in October 2012, said in a written statement Tuesday that, at the time he was named bishop, and until the diocese provided documents to the attorney general’s office in 2016 and 2017, “Father Poulson’s name was not raised.” The documents included the 2010 memo.

Persico also said: “The diocese apologizes for the crimes of its priests/employees and has taken numerous steps to ensure that the sins of the past are not repeated by using trained independent investigators/lawyers, improving training on detecting grooming behaviors (related to possible sexual abuse), centralizing abuse-reporting mechanisms and understanding any missteps in detecting prior cases of abuse. The Diocese of Erie is fully committed to preventing, detecting and reporting abuse in the best possible manner going forward.”

A diocesan spokeswoman said Trautman would have no statement.

Shapiro, at a news conference at the Erie County Courthouse, said: “The memo shows that the diocese knew of Poulson’s predatory behaviors at least eight years ago and yet they allowed him to continue in active ministry as a priest within the diocese until he resigned as a pastor ... just a couple of months ago.

“They knew it. And they knew it for years. They did nothing to stop this abuse. They did nothing throughout those years until very recently to alert law enforcement. They did nothing to alert other parishioners, especially parishioners who had young children. Instead, they let Poulson remain in active ministry.”

Shapiro’s disclosure of the memo added another layer to the case against Poulson, who is accused of abusing the first victim in the rectories at St. Anthony of Padua and St. Michael Church in Fryburg, Clarion County, and at Poulson’s hunting cabin in a remote area of Jefferson County.

That abuse occurred between 2002 and 2010, when the victim was 8 to 16 years old, according to the attorney general’s office. Investigators said the last incident of abuse in either case occurred on Dec. 6, 2010, seven months after the creation of the memo.

Poulson is accused of molesting the second victim between 2003 and 2006, when the boy was 15 to 18. The attorney general’s office said that abuse occurred only at the cabin.

Though the memo provides a rare look at the inner workings of a Roman Catholic diocese, its discovery did not spark the criminal investigation of Poulson, according to the attorney general’s office. The office said that impetus came from the information that Persico had the diocese send to the office earlier this year.

The information, according to records Shapiro released on Tuesday, included a Jan. 26 memo that another priest wrote to Persico about abuse allegations that the priest had received about Poulson that same day from a now-23-year-old-man — now listed as the first victim in the criminal case against Poulson.

A lawyer for the diocese also provided the attorney general’s office with the names of six boys with whom Poulson had contact years ago, Shapiro said.

Starting with that information, the attorney general’s office presented evidence against Poulson to the grand jury, which recommended, through a presentment released Tuesday, that the office charge Poulson with abusing two boys.

Shapiro said his office presented nine other men as witnesses against Poulson before the grand jury, and that prosecutors believed evidence of a sexual assault existed in at least one case. But Shapiro said the statute of limitations had expired for prosecuting those allegations.

In the cases brought against Poulson with the two victims, the presentment shows that the attorney general’s office had the May 2010 memo long before launching the criminal investigation.

The office got the memo through a grand jury subpoena in September 2016 — a subpoena that the grand jury issued as part of its investigation into how the Erie diocese and five other Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania handled allegations of child sexual abuse. That statewide probe is ongoing.

On Tuesday, Shapiro said questions about when Persico learned of the May 2010 memo should be directed to Persico. But Shapiro said that, based on the contents of the memo, Trautman knew about complaints against Poulson but allowed him to remain in active ministry.

“This abuse and this coverup occurred largely during Trautman’s tenure,” Shapiro said.

In his statement, Persico said that he ordered an independent legal analysis of the diocesan records at the same time the diocese produced records to the grand jury. During that review, Persico said, “the 2010 report was flagged by the diocese’s independent counsel as a case where grooming behaviors perhaps went undetected,” referring to behavior in which Poulson, according to the memo, spent time with a student mentioned in the memo.

Persico said the diocese told the attorney general’s office that “it would be reviewing Father Poulson and attempting to contact the former student at issue in the 2010 report.” Persico also said the student declined to speak with anyone in 2010 “after a third party reported suspicions.” In 2017, Persico said in the statement, the former student did not return phone calls, email or certified letters from the diocese, though he signed for the letters.

“Recognizing that disclosure must take place on the victim’s terms,” Persico said, “even the diocese’s independent lawyers and investigators were at a standstill.”

The May 2010 memo, according to the grand jury presentment, stated that Poulson admitted to Trautman, in a recorded interview, that Poulson’s text messages with boys were “suggestive to sexual advances” and that Poulson had become sexually aroused while tutoring a boy.

Trautman, according to the presentment, “admonished” Poulson, told him to stop the behavior and said that spending time alone with a minor violated diocesan policy.

Shapiro said the memo “was written eight years ago and locked up and hidden in the church’s secret archives. They knew about it and they hid it and they kept it secret.”

Shapiro was asked whether the attorney general’s office had looked into the actions of diocesan officials in relation to the handling of Paulson’s case. Shapiro replied that the investigation is ongoing.

He also said that Poulson “weaponized his faith and used it as a tool to abuse young boys. It is unconscionable to me that the church knew Poulson was a threat to children and allowed him to stay in ministry and to be a threat to other children.

“They placed the pecuniary interests of the church, their reputations and the reputation of the church, above the well being of children within their care. Their collective actions are abhorrent.”

Poulson was pastor at St. Michael in Fryburg from 2000 to November 2010 and was pastor at St. Anthony of Padua until February. He is accused of molesting the first victim, who is now 23, usually on Sundays at the churches’ rectories, “after the victim served as an altar boy at Mass,” according to the presentment.

That victim told the grand jury that Poulson molested him more than 20 times at the rectories and five to 10 times at the hunting camp. Poulson, according to the presentment, also made that victim “go to confession and confess the sexual abuse to Poulson in his capacity as a priest.”

“This was the ultimate betrayal and manipulation by Poulson,” Shapiro said. “He used the tools of his priesthood to further his abuse.”

The attorney general’s office said Poulson was arrested at his mother’s house in Oil City on Tuesday morning and arraigned on the abuse charges before a district judge in Jefferson County, Gregory M. Bazylak, who ordered Poulson held at the Jefferson County Prison on $300,000 bond. A preliminary hearing is set for May 21.

Poulson, according to court records, is charged with eight counts. The offense date for three of the charges is listed as Jan. 1, 2002: endangering the welfare of children as a third-degree felony, indecent assault of a person younger than 13 as a first-degree misdemeanor and indecent assault of a person younger than 16 as a second-degree misdemeanor.

The offense date for three other charges is listed as Jan. 1, 2003. They are endangering the welfare of a child and corruption of minors, both first-degree misdemeanors, and indecent assault without consent as a second-degree misdemeanor.

Poulson is also charged with the third-degree felony of indecent assault of a person younger than 13, with an offense date of Feb. 1, 2006; and the third-degree felony of endangering the welfare of children, with an offense date of Dec. 6, 2010.

The charges relate to incidents in three counties: Crawford, Clarion and Jefferson, all part of the 13-county Catholic Diocese of Erie. The attorney general’s office said the case was consolidated in Jefferson County, where Poulson’s cabin is located, and Poulson will be prosecuted in Jefferson County for the charges related to all the incidents.

Poulson is no longer an active priest. Persico announced on Feb. 13 that he had accepted the resignation of Poulson after the diocese received what it believed to be “credible allegations” against him “regarding the sexual abuse of minors.”

The Cambridge Springs Police Department announced that same day that it was investigating “an alleged incident of sexual abuse of a minor” that was reported to have occurred at St. Anthony and that Poulson was named and was the main focus of the investigation.

The attorney general’s office took over the investigation in late February at the request of Crawford County District Attorney Francis Schultz. He said he referred the investigation to the attorney general’s office because the allegations against Poulson occurred in more than one county.

In addition to his duties at St. Anthony, Poulson served as chaplain at the State Correctional Institution at Cambridge Springs; bishop’s delegate for Mass in the Extraordinary Form, or the Latin Mass; diocesan liaison to the Catholic Charismatic Renewal; and diocesan chaplain for the World Apostolate of Fatima.

The Catholic Diocese of Erie on April 6 named Poulson on a list of 34 priests and 17 laypeople that the diocese said had been credibly accused of inappropriate behavior with minors.

Persico released the list as the attorney general’s office neared the end of its investigation into how the Erie diocese and the five other Catholic dioceses statewide handled allegations of clerical sexual abuse. The attorney general’s office started the probes in 2016 by presenting evidence to the statewide investigative grand jury.

The grand jury’s term ended on April 30, and the attorney general’s office is expected to release its report soon, though Shapiro on Tuesday said he had no comment on that probe. The report will be public and is expected to name abusive priests, based on previous grand jury reports on other Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania. A year ago, the attorney general’s office released a highly critical 147-page grand jury report on the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

Of the 34 clergy on the list, 21 are deceased. Two of the 17 laypeople on the list are deceased.



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